When it comes to our justification—our legal standing before God—our own good works are in no way the grounds of God’s declaration that we are “righteous.” Indeed, the gospel is good news because we are saved not by what we have done, but by what Christ has done. We are accepted by God not because of our works, but in spite of them.
So what does God think of our good works after we are saved? Here, unfortunately, Christians often receive mixed messages. Somewhere along the way we have begun to believe that our pride is best held in check, and God’s grace is most magnified, when we denigrate all our efforts and all our labors as merely “filthy rags” in the sight of God (Is. 64:6).
But does God really view the Spirit-wrought works of his own children in such a fashion? Is God pleased only with Christ’s work, and always displeased with our own?
Not at all. Time and time again, the Scriptures show that God is pleased with the righteousness deeds of the saints. God was pleased with Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). God was pleased with Zechariah and Elizabeth: “And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). Christ was pleased with Mary’s gift of perfume (Mark 14:6), a deed he called “beautiful.” Christ was pleased with the widow's offering: “She put in more than all of them” (Luke 21:3).
Indeed, one could say that the entire “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11 is a catalog of the great deeds of the saints. Think of all that was done by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, David, Samuel, and others. Are all their deeds “filthy rags” in God’s sight?
Of course, we should not be surprised that God is pleased with the good works of his people. As Hebrews 11:1-2 tells us, God is pleased with these works precisely because they were done out of faith. They are good works generated from the work of God’s own Spirit in the hearts of the saints (Eph. 2:10). Sure, they are not perfect works—they are always tainted by sin to some degree. And no, we cannot think for a moment that they merit salvation. They do not. But they are the works of God’s own sons and daughters, and he delights in them.
This larger biblical context can provide the proper framework for understanding the intent of passages like Isaiah 64:6. The “filthy rags” in this passage does not refer to the Spirit-wrought works of the regenerate, but the outward religious grandstanding of the wicked (see Isaiah 58). This understanding allows John Piper to say the following:
It is terribly confusing when people say that the only righteousness that has any value is the imputed righteousness of Christ. I agree that justification is not grounded on any of our righteousness, but only the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. But sometimes people are careless and speak disparagingly of all human righteousness, as if there were no such thing that pleased God. They often cite Isaiah 64:6, which says our righteousness is as filthy rags. . . . [But] when my sons do what I tell them to do—I do not call their obedience “filthy rags” even if it is not perfect. Neither does God. All the more because he himself is “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” (Hebrews 13:21). He does not call his own, Spirit-wrought fruit, “rags.” (Future Grace, 151-152).
In a similar fashion, the Westminster Confession offers a wonderfully balanced perspective on how God views the good works of his people:
Yet notwithstanding, the person of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works are also accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreproveable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF 16.6).
Good and Faithful
God’s delight in the works of his people is not, as some might think, a recipe for pride. Rather, it is a tremendous (and much needed) encouragement to those of us laboring in ministry. Our efforts can seem futile. We often find ourselves spent and exhausted.
What a refreshment to our souls to know that our Father in heaven actually delights in these labors! It is like salve on our blisters and a balm to our aching muscles to know that he is pleased with the faith-driven works of his children.
He is like a Father who sees the painting his 5-year old brought home from school. He doesn’t pour scorn on the effort because it is not a Rembrandt. Instead, he takes the painting, with all its flaws, and sticks it on the refrigerator for all to see.
Indeed, it is this very hope—that God might be pleased with our labors—that Jesus lays out as a motive for us. For our hope is that one day we might hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:23).